Neglected art

Thousands of paintings, embroideries, tribal wood and stone carvings and other such rare artefacts lay crammed in the two-storey Home of Folk Art, says Amar Chandel

I had heard quite a bit about K.C. Aryan’s Home of Folk Art but nothing had prepared me for the actual magnitude of this art treasure tucked away in a non-descript two-storey house of Gurgaon when I visited it. Thousands of folk paintings, embroideries, tribal wood and stone carvings, folk and tribal bronzes, priest art (tantrik), litho prints, traditional book covers, folk toys, tribal jewellery, calico printing wooden blocks, papier-mâché masks, card puppets, minor art and utilisation objects lay crammed in four rooms of the two-storey 500-sq yards house. There was barely enough space for its director B.N. Aryan to sleep. This should indeed rank as one of the most outstanding private museums — and also the smallest, most cramped and with virtually no security arrangements worth the name and no insurance either.

B. N. Aryan with some of the exhibits
B. N. Aryan with some of the exhibits Photo by the writer

These varied creations of artists and artisans were collected by his illustrious father, K.C. Aryan, over 70 years mostly from undivided Punjab, Afghanistan and Swat and many of the items are all but extinct in their places of origin. To that extent, the exhibits are a peep into another era, which has been elbowed out by the march of modernisation.

Aryan senior was a top-notch artiste himself, having won the National Award of Lalit Kala Akademi in 1964, besides many other honours. Nobel laureate Octavio Paz had said about him: "Aryan is a contemporary Indian artist successfully welding together the Indianness with the language of modern art and whose contribution to modern art in India will remain memorable for all time to come". He was perhaps the only artist in the country who also wrote 23 books on various unexplored fields of art. Some of his best-known books are Encyclopaedia of Indian Art, Hanuman: Art Mythology and Folklore, Indian Folk Bronzes, The Cultural Heritage of Punjab and Punjab Murals.

Besides being a painter, sculptor, story-illustrator, graphic designer and art historian, he was also an art collector who was deeply anguished that many of the folk and traditional art objects of India were facing extinction and he started assiduously collecting them in 1938 despite his limited means. That is how the museum came into being in 1984 and has since been expanded by his four children — two sons and two daughters — all of whom are committed to art.

A painting of goddess Hoi or Ahoi on kite paper with vegetable colours, Kumaon Hills, Uttaranchal, late 19th century, is one of its kind
A painting of goddess Hoi or Ahoi on kite paper with vegetable colours, Kumaon Hills, Uttaranchal, late 19th century, is one of its kind

Both the daughters hold Ph.D degrees in their respective subjects. The chairperson, Dr Subhashini Aryan, is a renowned art historian with more than 15 books to her credit. She did her Ph.D on the temples of Himachal Pradesh. Dr Anuradha, a trustee and life-member, is a Ph. D in history from JNU and a Fulbright scholar.

Baij Nath Aryan, the director, has travelled widely all over the world for lectures on Indian folk art with more than 50 research papers to his credit published in India and abroad. Gautam Dev Aryan is also a trustee and life-member. Both brothers also run Rekha Prakashan founded by the late K. C. Aryan.

BN some years ago brought from the US a rare Bengali Kantha (wrap or blanket) of the 19th century, which had found its way to the shelf of a professor of University of Missouri, Columbia, and was there for 30 years.

Of the very many objects in their collection, barely one-third are on display. The rest remain packed in boxes for want of space. Among the oldest exhibits is a stone Mother Goddess figurine from Mathura belonging to the early second century. Most others belong to the period between seventh century and early 20th century.

The most eye-catching are Hanumans in various forms and mediums like paintings, stone images, armlets, bronzes, silver pendants, patakas, drawings, embroideries, wood-carvings and dramatic masks etc.

Equally eye-catching are the artistically made objects of everyday use that are no longer in vogue. For instance, there are iron hemp filters from Rajasthan and Himachali locks called Shaingans. No less exquisite are Mohras from Himachal Pradesh, Shiva heads from North Karnataka, finest phulkaris and embroideries from Punjab (both East and west), Himachal Pradesh and Swat valley.

There are more than 200 intricately made Chamba rumals — some of the finest and largest in the world. In fact, it was K. C. Aryan who brought these to the notice of the world. Then there are caps, manuscript wrappers, hand fans, rosary covers, cholis and coverlets. The aesthetics of these tribal and folk items is unique.

Aryan worked on unexplored areas of Punjab art, architecture and culture and opened avenues for future researchers. If he hadn’t written on folk bronzes, paintings and countless other subjects, these objects would have vanished long ago. He had seen people willfully destroying precious objects lying with them. He collected them for posterity.

He discovered and brought into limelight, for the very first time, folk bronzes from Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Orissa and other parts of India and folk paintings from Punjab that had never been collected by anyone. In 1962, Lalit Kala Akademi had commissioned him to copy the fresco paintings of Krishna temple, in Nurpur, Himachal Pradesh, which he did despite fierce opposition from certain vested interests who even threatened to kill him. These were included in his seminal book, Punjab Murals. What a pity that in 1991, all these frescos were whitewashed.

Right till his death in 2002 at the age of 83, K. C. Aryan continued pleading with various governments to provide him land at a concessional rate where a suitable building could be constructed to display the objects properly. But that did not move anybody, despite the fact that some embassies were willing to help with funds for building the museum. The same has been the case with B. N. Aryan.

The fruitless struggle has left the Aryans sad and dejected because taking care of such priceless objects is not an easy task and has taken a heavy toll on their personal lives, but there is no light at the end of the tunnel. Their father saved the country’s artistic and cultural heritage; it is not certain if his labour of 70 years would survive the vagaries of time. For instance, some objects may wither away because of lack of scientific storage and some may get spoiled because of absence of air-conditioning.